Leaders in the Making: The Crucibles of Change Makers in HR


Read Time:13 Minute

A discussion on the theme of the book “Leaders in the Making – The Crucibles of Change  Makers in HR” authored by Dr Arvind N Agrawal, Managing Partner, Lead Associates & Former President, NHRD and Mr T V Rao, Chairman, T.V. Rao Learning Systems.  The discussion with the authors was led by Ms S Vijayalakshmi, MCC MP Master Coach & Mentor.

Vijayalakshmi: What was your vision for the book? As co-authors, did you intuitively share the same vision?

Arvind Agarwal: To be honest, I didn’t have any grand vision. I had just some childlike curiosity. I had rubbed shoulders with many super professionals in HRD forums. I used to always wonder, ‘What are they really like? What has been their life journey?’ I would love to write about it. I also thought that since these are super professionals, their stories would be inspiring for young professionals in their career journey.  

T V Rao: For a professor, teaching and learning continuously is the only vision I can think of. So I was looking for learning from the HR leaders and then passing on the knowledge. And that’s what we’re doing through this book—learn and disseminate.  

Vijayalakshmi:  Can you highlight the essence of this 462 page book? 

Arvind: We have been touched in our lives by a lot of people in our journey—parents, friends, teachers, bosses and even professional bodies like MMA. That’s how we have become who we are. The book is all about those experiences in the life journey—like how you have been impacted? By whom? In what moments? What were those points of inflections? What choices did you make?  

TV Rao: The first lesson is, leaders make themselves by learning from various other people and experiencing both positive and negative crucible experiences. They convert each crucible moment into an experience, learn not to repeat mistakes or learn from both mistakes and good things. Each one uses other people’s experiences, which include family as a source of learning, which they acknowledge only much later. 

One remarkable thing we discovered is that more than what teachers teach in a class, the way they treat students outside the class and connect with them makes a lot of impact. That is a big lesson. The bosses largely have positive impact but you also learn from bad bosses.  Nobody designates people as leader. But once you assume leadership position, you start contributing in a big way to the society. Leadership is not really impacting people in your organization but people around you also.  There are about 14 different categories of lessons that we have drawn.

Vijayalakshmi: Two words hit you when you go through the book. One is crucible and the other word is baking.   

Arvind:  I read a work by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas. They talked about crucibles of leadership and that resonated with me. I thought it would be great to discover what crucibles of experiences HR legends have gone through. So that was our inquiry. Crucible, in the medieval time, was a vessel used by the alchemist to convert metal into gold. That was not an easy process. Likewise, when you go through life experiences, in that moment, it may be violent, unpleasant and sometimes positive. But much later, when you look back, you realize the importance of it and lasting impact it has left in you. That’s the shaping of the personality, the character and the mind of the person. That connected well with both of us. Once we heard the stories from HR leaders, we cherry picked their crucible experiences and analysed them. 

Vijayalakshmi: I think even the last three years of the pandemic have seen huge, global crucible experiences for all of us. Hopefully, humanity has emerged better. You have featured 30, impactful, inspiring and heart-warming narratives of HR leaders. Can you share some learning from that process of having deep conversations? 

Arvind: It was an overwhelming experience for me personally. I had known most of the people featured in the book. But in the process of talking to them over six hours, I realized how little I actually knew them, perhaps not more than 10 to 20%. The second is, all of them unconditionally responded to my questions and gave me time. 

Vijayalakshmi: You have identified the settings of the crucible experiences and presented them in 14 categories, ranging from family to volunteering to social causes. Could you talk to us a little bit through some interesting revelations, as you put together those categories of experiences?

TV Rao: If you go sequentially, first it is dealing with the childhood and parents. We had leaders who were born in a variety of backgrounds. So one lesson is, it doesn’t matter what family you’re born in, but it matters what kind of values, examples and socialization parents have given you, even in difficult times. Second is the impact of teachers, schools and colleges. We have leaders who have come from top institutions like IIM or the XLRI but we also have leaders who have studied in not-so-well known institutions but still made it big. But having said that, I think it is not the institution itself, it is some of the faculty in the institutions who seem to matter. Some of the leaders recall even today, the kind of impact the faculty had on them, both in the school as well as the college. So if the professors gave you an assignment or a project where they asked you to go and work with the poor, or the labourers or study the beggars and things of that nature, it leaves a great impact. So teachers make a phenomenal impact.

Third, one can see the importance of the first job. Sometimes some of them get very routine kind of tasks but they have got the best out of it. Like if you’re asked to maintain attendance of people or you were asked to look at the employee records, the person may treat it merely as a routine job. But understanding that maintaining attendance register and employee records is the best way to know the entire organization, is another way of looking at it. So, how people treat their first job creates an impact. Bosses who mentored and understood you also make an impact. People who handled industrial relations in the early part of their life seem to have learned quite a lot, which we were discounting earlier.

In fact, many times I’ve said HRD is separate from industrial relations. I used to say HRM is equal to industrial relations plus personnel management plus HRD. But today, I have come to the conclusion that all three are integrated. There is no HRD without both IR as well as personnel management.  Contribution to professional bodies like National HRD Network, ISTD, NIPM and to social causes has helped people to grow.  

Arvind: One additional thread that we picked up, apart from everything that TV Rao has already said is the power of immersive business experience. Out of 30 people we have featured in the book, there were 17 people who had accountable business role, at some phase in their career. Either they would have come from business role into human resource or they would have gone from human resource to business. Listening to their stories, the importance of business experience equally comes out very strongly. So if people want to build their career in the HR profession, they should definitely look for industrial relation experience and equally for some business system, if they can.  

Vijayalakshmi: What were the surprises or revelations in what you have narrated as HR Legends’ competencies?  

Arvind: Our approach was unique. Mostly around the world, when people do any competency mapping, they will do behavioural interviews and from that, they conclude the other competencies. Our approach was that from the stories of HR legends, we have culled out what their competencies are. To our surprise, the findings resonated well with the popular competency models of human resource. Whether it’s SHRM, CIPD of UK, Bill Wooldridge model or NHRD network’s own model HRSCAPE, the findings align very well. Only one new dimension which came up and which we don’t largely find across other models is the social relationship and its importance. Aspects such as being mindful of larger causes, giving back to the society, making a difference in the lives of other people came very prominently, right through the 30 stories.   

TV Rao: I strongly recommend every HR manager to take some time off every year and work with an NGO or work for a social cause. In many conferences, I keep on repeating this. A little bit of a surprise is why is it that except for some leaders, most of them wait till they reach 50s or 60s to become socially more conscious. I wish the future leaders do it much earlier in their life.

The other most interesting competence is the HR eader’s integrating ability. They are not merely HR leaders but leaders in their own right and could have handled any other leadership role with ease because of their HR background or orientation.  They have an ability to integrate business with larger causes, put things in a larger perspective and talk of contemporary issues like work and its meaning, life and its meaning and so on. 

Vijayalakshmi:  Can you list out the top three to five HRM values that stood out for you?

 Arvind: Trustworthiness comes on top, followed by integrity, authenticity, respect for people and connecting with others. 

TV Rao: I may add openness, collaboration, proactiveness, confrontation and experimentation.

Vijayalakshmi: One of the limitations you have acknowledged is the number of women HRLs who are featured—just two out of 30. Is there a larger issue out there that we need to acknowledge as professional bodies and as industries?

 TV Rao:  The larger issues are always there. We have moved a great deal, but we still have a long way to go. Recently, we had a reunion of IIMA 1982 batch after 40 years of coming here. Nearly 100 of them came but there were only about seven or eight women. This speaks something about what was happening between 1982 and 2022. Arvind and I have started encouraging some people. A group of them in in Bangalore have volunteered to undertake the task of writing the next part of this book on women leaders.

Dr Arvind N Agrawal also led a conversation with Mr Sridhar Ganesh, Leadership Development Mentor and Executive Coach and Mr S V Nathan, Partner and Chief Talent Officer, Deloitte, South Asia & National President, NHRD.

Arvind Agarwal: Sridhar.  You were a Calcutta boy, going through a very prestigious St. Xavier’s college. You mentioned that you were very much influenced by French/Belgian Jesuits. What has been the influence of the people you met in St. Xavier’s?

Sridhar Ganesh: I was very fortunate that I studied in a local, Tamil society school. Then I moved on to St. Xavier’s to do my Physics. What impressed me about the Jesuits was they were very simple, extremely humble, had tons of knowledge and were hugely committed to their cause. They would go to any extent to help a student. For example, in my case, there were some books on subjects like heat and electricity, which were extremely unaffordable for me. They would lend them from their personal library on only one condition—make sure that you return it.  They were so supportive. 

Arvind:  You have also talked about the influence of other teachers as you grow further in your education. You went to IIM Calcutta and chose HR as a profession. What made you choose HR?

 Sridhar: I was enamoured by two things. One, the quality of my teachers. They were all stalwarts. In those days, it was not even called HR. It was called Personnel Management. I was enamoured by what they had to offer and the science of psychology and people science. I could relate to it and it sort of touched me and therefore, took it up as my career.

Arvind: Nathan, you studied in The Steel City at XLRI. What are your impressions of XLRI that seems to have produced a large number of HR legends? 

Nathan: XLRI is a great place. It teaches you three things. One, service before self. The second thing is, most of the professors we had, built in us a sense of values, without seemingly so. The third one is to be industrious. You have to work very hard. 

Arvind: If you were to think about one or two impactful teachers from whom you really learned something, which even today you remember and apply in your profession, what would be that?

Nathan: There was an old lady professor by name Neelima Acharya. She taught industrial relations and we would be bored to death. But I remember she once made a statement:  Every management gets the union it deserves. I applied that in many walks of my life. You only get what you deserve because of what you do. That was a very powerful statement for me.

There was another professor—Professor Gangopadhyay. He taught statistics which is not an easy subject. He was a cerebral professor. There was Subbu, a student in our class, who was very brainy and very good in mathematics. One day, as the professor was writing some very complicated mathematics –finding out the inverse of a matrix, I think, Subbu walked to the board and solved that. Immediately the professor stopped him and said, “Subbu. You now get an A. You don’t have to attend any of my classes. But if you want an A plus, you must write the exam.” Subbu never came to the class again. I remember as if it happened yesterday. Sometimes we just overbake things. If there is something which is already done, then don’t do that more.  

Arvind: You both are serial authors. Can you share one or two messages that you would like to give to the people here today?

 Sridhar: Be driven by a sense of purpose. In HR, we tend to be very insular.  Employee connectedness is very important. That’s where everything of a business rests. The third thing is being business aware. Most HR people are not even aware of what the company’s revenues are or what EBITDA means.  People should become be more immersive in the business of the company.

 Nathan:  All of us have a story waiting to be told. It is important for us to say that story. Sometimes we discount ourselves. I don’t think there is any need for us to do that. Second, they say data is oil and all that. Personal data is worth nothing. So share and care. In the eight hours that we spend in office, the fact that somebody listened to me shows that somebody cares for me and my story. The third one is, we do a lot of ground work. But somebody else maybe doing a lot more than what you’re doing. So have respect for that.  It doesn’t matter whether you work in a multinational or you work in an Indian company, as HR professionals. Multinationals take extraordinary people. Many times, they falter at the altar and don’t get the best of results. They could do much more. But Indian companies take the so called ordinary people and get extraordinary results out of them. It is all about getting the best out of yourself and others.

The Success Principles

Read Time:12 Minute

Under the series ‘Read & Grow,’ MMA organised a panel discussion on the theme of the book “The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be” authored by Jack Canfield. Mr Sreenivasan Ramprasad, Director, CADD Centre Training Services led the conversation with Mr Umasanker Kandaswamy, Co-Founder & Senior Vice President Sales & Relationships, AVTAR Group and Mr Deepak Shankar, Founder and CEO, Mirabilie Design.

Ramprasad: Let me begin with some of the key takeaways from the book. If you want to be successful in life, you have to take 100% responsibility. You have to be clear about what you want. Your purpose should be well-defined. For example, in CADD Centre, we enable the students to realise their dreams by providing them with world-class training. That is our purpose. We have control over only three things in our life: The thoughts we think, the images we visualize and the actions we take. If we manage these three things effectively, we can achieve whatever we want. In the book, ‘Think and Grow Rich,’ Napoleon Hill says that whatever the mind conceives and believes, it can achieve. Complaining is an ineffective response to an event and does not produce a better outcome. We must learn to replace complaining with making requests and taking actions which will help us achieve our desired outcomes. Think what you can do differently to make it happen.

Make a list of thirty things you want to do before you die. Most of the professionals who want to be successful don’t know what they want. If you want to create a balanced and successful life, your vision needs to include the following seven areas: work and career; finances; recreation; health and fitness; relationships; personal goals and contribution to the larger community. The world pays you for what you do. Overcome your limiting beliefs. These are some of the points highlighted in the book.

Deepak Shankar: It talks about an equation: Event + Response = Output. It also says, ‘Plan your day the previous night, not on the same morning.’ I have found this very useful. When we start planning, we think about the things that will happen in the future. Based on that, we can respond to those scenarios. 

Umasanker: We are all craving for success. First, we must believe that we are all successful. There is no one formula to be successful. According to me, it is a continuous process. You need to work on it again and again, follow some of the successful people and see they have done for themselves. It’s all about consistency.

Ramprasad: I recall a story from a Wayne Dyer’s book. A person steps out of his house when it is dark. His key falls down and he searches for the key in the dark. Unable to find it, he goes inside his house where there is light. When asked why he is searching inside the house when he knows for sure that he has lost it outside, he replies, “Because there is light inside.” For most problems, we don’t look at inside of us but outside.

Placing Second-Career Women

Umasanker: Being persistent and purposeful are very important. We started Avatar way back in 2000. It’s about 22 years that we have been running this organisation. We started off with recruitment as our objective. But there were so many people out there and we thought how we could be different. We decided to take up talent which is niche and wanted to empower them. 

We looked at women who were taking a break in their career for maternity or for other social responsibility. When they come back after the break, they are not treated well. We wanted to place such women. Two decades ago, when we approached organisations, they were not ready for this idea and we always returned empty-handed. But we kept on persisting because we had a strong purpose. 

After five to six years, one company—Thomson Reuters—decided to give it a try. They hired one woman from us. After that, we were able to touch upon a large multinational bank—Standard Chartered Bank. They asked us if we could place people for their 125 seater office. We took it as a challenge and the entire team worked on it. We placed 250 women. 125 women worked for half-a-day with half the salary and the other 125 worked for the rest of the day. It was a win-win for us and the company that engaged our people.

So far, we have placed 100,000 second-career women. For the next five years, we have kept a 5x target for our sales team—that is, to help five lakh women. Now we are impacting about 2,000 organisations across India. We want to impact one lakh organizations in the next five years. We know it’s a very audacious goal. Simply put, there are about 1.5 million women who have taken a break in career. Give them at least Rs.20,000 salary to all these women. In the next one month, India will become a superpower. This is possible. Our vision is to make sure that in India we have 50/50 gender balance.

Deepak: My Company is US-based. Our story of persistence is similar to this. Maybe we don’t impact lakhs of people. We have a much smaller and focussed business. When we started the company in the US, we were just three of us. We sat around a dining table and wanted to start an innovative product company. We didn’t want to be a services company. But at that point, US was heading into a recession. Nobody wanted to buy a product from an unknown company. We were getting a lot of lucrative consulting engagements but we turned them down.

Finally, after a lot of struggle, we got a call from Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Trivandrum. They wanted us to do an analysis of the Chandrayaan-1 and find out the likelihood of that rocket failing. We had built a tool for that. Because we waited all the time, we ended up getting a chance to be a pure product company.

Then we got offers for the Mars Rover, F16 flight and a whole bunch of other stuff. But those initial days of being focused and sticking to our goal to be a product company, really helped us. We live in an extremely high-priced neighbourhood in San Francisco. Without orders in the initial days, paying massive mortgage, travel and other bills was very challenging. But we still stuck on to our goal. 

Ramprasad: When I started my career with CADD Centre, it was a small organisation. Today we have about 700 centers in 28 countries and every three minutes, a CADD trained person is coming out of a centre. But when I joined, we had only two branches—Chennai and Bangalore. I joined them in Bangalore and I was just 23 years old. Since I was from BITS Pilani and I lived in Delhi, almost every day, I was pushing my boss, who is the current chairman of the company, that we should open a branch in Delhi and that we should be a national company, not just a Madras-based company. These two branches together were just making Rs.7 lakhs per annum, which just covered our expenses.

My boss wanted to put an end to my pestering. So he said, “Okay, I’ll agree for the Delhi branch on one condition. The first month you go to Delhi, you should bill for one lakh.” He was very confident that it won’t happen. Technically, it was possible. We were charging Rs.2,000 per student. If we train 12 to 13 students every week, we can bill 25,000 per week. But practically, it was not easy, as we would be new to the place and to establish, it would take time. 

It was 1st October 1990. From that time onwards, I started visualising our Delhi Branch as though we were already operating there. Exactly 25 days later, on October 25th, I got a call from BHEL in Delhi asking us to train 13 engineers at their office in Delhi by sending one of our engineers. So even before I went to Delhi, we got our first order for Rs.26,000 and it was amazing. 

On 5 November, I landed in Delhi travelling by Tamilnadu Express. Agitations due to the Mandal Commission report were going on and I somehow managed my way to my house. I had very limited time. I had to do another 74,000 to meet my target. Engineers India Limited came to my mind because they are all engineers creating big refineries and other projects. I went to their office.

I was in their first floor of their office waiting to meet the person responsible for CAD. I was sitting outside his cabin and I heard a dialogue from inside. Two people were talking. The first person said that they had completed their supplies of hardware and software and requested for acceptance. The second person said, “You have supplied hardware and software but you need to complete the training.” Then the first person said that they would complete the training before the installation and requested the other to sign the acceptance. The second person said that it was very clearly written in the contract that only after the training was completed, they would be able to release the payment.” The first person continued, “If it was ordinary training, we would have done immediately but this is CAD training.”

Hearing this, I could not resist myself. I walked into the cabin and said, “I’m sorry gentlemen. I overheard your dialogue. I am from CADD Centre and I heard that you were talking about CAD Training. I can help you.” I discovered that the first person was from HCL and he was a senior in my college. Guess what happened? Within the next half an hour, he took out a letterhead from his suitcase and issued an order for CAD training of 28 people, starting from November 19 of the same month. So I got an order for Rs.56,000. I was acting pricey and asked for advance payment because I knew he was desperate. The same evening, he gave me the advance. Now Rs.82,000 was in my kitty.

Two days later, I went to another company to explore the training opportunity. They said that they didn’t need training but wanted the CAD software. I said, “I can manage that.” I knew HCL supplied the software. We were not allowed to sell software at that time. So I took a special permission, supplied the software for Rs.25,000 and exceeded my target by Rs.7,000. That’s how we started our Delhi branch. The lesson here is, if you passionately want things to happen, it will happen. Start visualizing what you want to be. Don’t keep it just as a wish. The universe will work for you. Now, my question is, are the success habits given in the book still relevant today?

Umasanker: They are all very much relevant. The basic principles will stay forever.

Deepak: The principles are the same but they have evolved. For example, many of the work can now be done very quickly as we have many online planning tools. Many of them are available for free.

Ramprasad: How much applicable are these success habits for Gen Z?

Umasanker: Gen Z relies heavily on Google as a teacher. Going forward, information and data is power. Attrition is a major problem now. About 40 to 45 percent of the people offered a job, do not take the offer and so much of effort is getting wasted. We have created an artificial intelligence tool to predict if a person will take the offer or not.

In the younger generation, we have two types. One who are born with a golden spoon and the other, who don’t even have a spoon. We are a research organisation. We have a trust called Avtar Human Capital Trust and studied the percentage of girls who pass out from corporation schools run by the government and join the college. It is just 1%. We have created a project called ‘Project Puthri.’ This project is the brain-child of Dr. Saundarya Rajesh, our founder. We have 500 volunteers. We go to all the schools, sign up and conduct a training program for students of 8th to 12th standards. 40 skills are imparted to them over five years. Through this, we are impacting about 7,000 children.

Most children come to these schools to have food, to use the bathroom and then for education which is only third on the order of priority. We want to change this and we have taken it as a mantle upon us. Many corporates are helping us in this project. India needs to become a developed country and our girls are going to take India to the next level. As a country, we are lax in following the processes. If we follow the processes and if we are persistent, we can achieve our goals.

Deepak: Today, it’s no longer about financial success as most people have a baseline. Processing information around us and evaluating it is very important. Garbage-in comes on WhatsApp University but you can’t have garbage-out. The challenge for Gen-Z is that they have too much information. They need to narrow down. My daughter has chosen podcast as a medium to communicate. She interviews kids from across the world. How did she narrow down to this choice? She did a lot of research. I am happy to share that her podcast is ranked No 2 in the world in the category of ‘podcast for teenagers.’

Umasanker: Just a few words for Gen Z. Whatever input goes into the mind will determine the output. Be conscious of that. Life is very simple. Don’t complicate it. You may have many online friends. But when the Internet is down, they will all disappear. Make sure you are physically and mentally connected with people, apart from connection through the internet.

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

Read Time:10 Minute

Under the ‘Read & Grow’ series, MMA organised a discussion on the theme of the book “Atomic Habits – An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” authored by James Clear. Mr Babu Krishnamoorthy, Investment Consultant, Mr Dayanand, Former Managing Director, Reckitt Benkiser and Mr  ISAK Nazar, Founder, Manna Foods were the panellists.

Babu: Jim Rohn, the speaker and thought leader said, “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” Every aspect of life is filled with examples of all of us trying something new but coming back to the habits that we are used to. If we want to grow, we have to give up some of the bad ones and imbibe the good ones. ‘Atomic habits’ gives a template of how you can move into better habits. If you’re able to become 1% better over one month, then over a 60 month period, you are a 60% better person than you were.

Nazar: In marketing, now there’s a new concept called purpose marketing. You will have to find a purpose in anything you market, whether it is a product or a personality or a concept. Similarly, habits do not form just like that. You need a purpose. I will give two or three examples. After my college days, I joined as a sales representative. From those days till I became Managing Director, I used to get up only at 7 am or 8 am till I was 35 years. One day I watched an interview of a politician. He said whatever time he got into bed, he would get up at 5 o’clock. It really struck me. From that day onwards, barring any kind of emergency, I get up at 5:30 in the morning. Throughout the book, James Clear talks about a small habit, practicing it continuously and achieving scalable results.

I had a great corporate career but something was telling me that I should be an entrepreneur. Pharmaceutical has been my background. I was selling medicines and switched over to dealing with overhead conductors, underground cables and HDPE bags. But the pharmaceutical thing was on my mind and so I wanted to start a pharmaceutical company. We have a small group of friends and we would meet once in a month. During our discussions, I said that my company’s name, the area and investments required were all finalised. But the wife of one of my friends who is a leading food technocrat intervened and said, “You’re getting into a competitive area. Why don’t you think of a futuristic proposal of getting into a food category that will offer healthy, traditional and natural food? You will be a category creator and you will not be one among hundred people.” It was a tough call. For the next 60 days, every day I thought about it and studied it. I went and met people. Finally, we launched the brand Manna. She also said, “If you want to get into this food business, you should equip yourself.” So I went to CFTRI and joined an 18-day course in Food Technology as a regular student, stayed in the hostel with three other people and completed it. So a small trigger like the politician’s interview and the suggestion by my friend’s wife can create a great impact. Reading books is a great habit and for me, nothing compares to reading a physical book. According to ‘Atomic Habits’ even small habits like how you walk, how you sleep, how you talk, how you dine and how you learn from others matter a lot.

Dayanand: I completely agree that small steps, consistently done, give you a habit, good or bad. In 2002, I was in Mumbai, working for GlaxoSmithKline as regional manager. Every evening at 5:30, a vendor would come and sell vada pav, which is popular in Mumbai. I developed the habit of eating vada pav at 5:30 and got addicted to it. I could later on break it with a lot of effort. James Clear talks about a model for making habits. In this, your identity is in the centre. There is a set of processes around it. Then there is a set of outcomes around it. Normally, we start with the outcome, for instance, I want to lose 15 kgs. The author suggests, start at who you want to be—a fit, healthy, agile and energetic person who can play with the kids for the next 25 years. That’s your identity. If you can crack the identity, the process and then the result or outcome will follow. In 2016, I had an extremely bad knee injury. My doctor said that I can’t do cycling, jogging, even climb the stairs or play football or tennis. Everything is gone. The only thing open for me was swimming. When I was 20 years old, I swore that I would never put my toe in a swimming pool because I wasn’t comfortable with water. Two years back, at 52, I learnt swimming and now I am able to able to swim to the deep side of the pool. I want to be fit and agile and I had no other choice and so I learnt swimming.

Babu: I joined a running group called Chennai Runners about 10 years ago. I was not focussing on fitness until then because of my lifestyle. I enrolled for the programme and on the first day, I met a senior and said that I wanted to run 10 km and asked him, “What’s the most difficult part of the exercise?” He looked at me funnily and said, “The most difficult thing for a runner is the distance between his bed and the shoe stand. If you can conquer that distance every morning at 5:00, believe me, you will be a great runner.” He also said, “Before you get started, make sure the previous night, you keep your running gear –your shoes, socks, etc.—ready outside so you will have the path of least resistance and you won’t change your mind.” That piece of advice really helped me.

Nazar: I have developed the habit of being at my office at 8.45 am every day, come what may. For any learning, the platform should be ready. I keep my platform always ready to learn. I have a five-member strong team taking care of our core areas like finance, administration and marketing. This team has been there for 20 years since we launched the brand. In spite of other offers, they continue with me for some purpose and reason. Money alone does not matter. There is something beyond money. My father told me that the best charity is not money or food but sharing of knowledge.

Babu: What are some of the habits that one should imbibe when they are 25?

Dayanand: It was 1998. I was working in GlaxoSmithKline and, ultimately, I spent 23 years with them. The first three years were brilliant. Around that time, I got married. I was Resident Manager of Karnataka, going from town to town. I didn’t know Kannada then. I spent 16 extremely successful years in sales. I moved to the corporate office in Delhi. I had to lead a cross-functional team. Three years into my career at GSK, my boss told me that I was not listening. He said, “Why don’t you allow your team to express?” I tried to defend but he said, “Listen. Just take this feedback and reflect on it.” I got the same feedback at home. There was an ego clash but I was thankful that I got that feedback much earlier in life and started working on it.

The second thing I would say, is willingness to learn. Most of these multinational companies never allow you to settle down in a place for more than two or three years. So, we lived in about 12 to 13 cities in 25 years but every 2 or 3 years, I was thrown into a new environment and your past doesn’t land you anything good. You have to start afresh, see what is around you and learn. I became a general manager and managing director. I knew nothing about Corporate Finance but as a GM, I had to suspend judgment and be open to saying, “Look, I just don’t understand this.”

Babu: It is great to have successful habits but you need to give up on some bad habits too. Before Diwali, I decided to go on a crash diet. I went to get some clothes stitched for Diwali and I discovered that my tailor measured my waist and added 2 inches more. I was even angry with him, but that was the truth. Soon, the entire sweet shop was inside my house as every relative, every friend gave sweets. I quickly gave up on my diet and continued my way. This book says that if you want to imbibe a habit or give up on a habit, then you must create an atmosphere that supports that. I needed to be in an environment away from sweets.

Dayanand: The author talks about four things in habit formation – cue, craving, response and result. In my vada pav addiction, the cue was the vendor entering our office with a basket of vada pav. I crave for that. I respond by eating and the result is satisfaction. To break that habit, I had to create the environment. I kept a few fruits and a bottle of water on the table which I had to cross to go and get vada pav. I stopped eating for two days and ultimately, I overcame eating vada pav whenever I wanted.

Babu: Did you face any difficulty in forming or changing any habit?

Nazar: Many things. I knew only marketing before getting into the business and I struggled with it initially. I am a very bad negotiator. The good point is I know that I am a bad negotiator. So I leave it to the person who does that purchase. The balance sheets would come to me from the auditors at the last minute for review and approval. In that urgency, I would go with whatever my auditor says. I realised that I was not doing a good job there. I have now left it to the professionals. Reading is a great habit. Unfortunately, even the newspapers are not read today. Supplements are read more than the main newspaper. Reading newspapers helped me to develop my language. While reading, you should read it with passion and with an intention to make a change in your behaviour. I recently read the book, “Die Empty.” The author of the book says, “Don’t keep anything here before you die. Give to others.”

Babu: Who are your inspirations and what are their habits?

Dayanand: My inspiration has always been the common man or common woman. It was 2017 and I was in Accra, capital of Ghana, doing a market visit. There was a young woman, in the early 20s. It was blistering hot, around noon. She was carrying a baby, maybe one-year-old. In most parts of Africa, women carry the baby, tied with a cloth on their back. The baby literally clings onto the mother’s back. In the market, she was doing physical labour, carrying goods on top of her head and moving them. I was in the wholesale market for about one and a half hours, making calls, standing in front of the outlet and just watching the consumers. The woman kept on working with complete commitment. I was an expatriate living in Nigeria who flew to Ghana. I was paid well and yet I was complaining. I was inspired by that woman and her commitment. Sometimes you see a blind person walking and crossing our roads, tapping the stick in front of them. We can help them for the next 2 or 3 minutes to cross the road, but after that, they smile and keep walking. Do they know that the next step they take will lead to a manhole or not? Yet, they take the next step. They possibly have hope or trust in life that something else will hold them. We are well paid, have good house, drive a car and yet, we complain about what we don’t have. When I see them having so much hope in life, I realise how much hope I should have and stop complaining.

My Train 18 Story

Read Time:8 Minute
The author, Mr Sudhanshu Mani, in conversation with Mr Keshav, Founder & CEO, Mantra, tells us how it is possible to deliver as a leader in a public enterprise, overcoming the shackles of bureaucracy, provided that the leader has a committed and capable team.

The Superstar Train

 Ms Vidya Ragu, founder, Himalayacalling and Skillsgurucool

The legacy of Indian railways started in 1845, exactly 177 years ago. But it got its fastest best in 2018-2019 when it got its superstar Train18 hitting the tracks. What made it very special was that it was made in India, from ICF, Chennai. The train from scratch-to-prototype was completed in 18 months, when the global standard is 36 months. It was completed with less than 50% of the estimated global cost, without any TOT (Transfer of Technology) from global experts and all made with in-house IPRs available with us. In India, we are very good at doing things but not so good at documenting them, in an interesting way. Luckily, Mr Mani has documented the Train 18 journey so well.

Attributes of a good leader

Mr Muthukumar, TAFE 

To me, leaders stand out when they believe that impossibility is a possibility. They also make other people believe in this. A leader has the courage of conviction (like Mahatma Gandhi, who fought a war without weapons). As Steven Covey says, a leader is one who makes people believe that they have capability in them. The journey that they take is holistic.

A good leader always takes risks. A baby turtle that does not stick its neck out after it is hatched, cannot reach the sea. Leaders influence the entire system to start working around them. They convert adversity into opportunity. Sudhanshu Mani’s team coming up with the first indigenous, semi-high-speed train in India is a great achievement. As a leader, he has made a difference to the country, which every Indian can be proud of.

Insulate our reserves

Mrs Indra Prem Menon, Senapathy Whiteley Group of Companies

Train 18 is a Make-in-India story, from start to finish. It is a story that deserves to be told. It is a story that will inspire engineers, entrepreneurs, creators, dreamers, doers and the like. The author Sudhanshu Mani has transformed a regular team of engineers into a well-oiled machine and made them perform like champions to create India’s first Vande Bharat express, in a matter of 18 months. This kind of devotion from a team to a leader and vice-versa can come only when there is openness and sharing of credit and praise to each other. It shows how one determined individual with a can-do spirit, though being a government employee, can face the onslaught of the bureaucracy and still manoeuvre the shackles and show the world that it can be done.

My company was associated with Indian Railways in developing and getting approval for our mica tape used as insulation for 6FRA Traction motors. I know how difficult it is to get approval from RDSO (Research, Designs and Standards Organisation). It was in the late 90s and early 2000s that I met Mr Mani who was heading RDSO at that time. I am proud to say that mica tape is used now as a primary insulation in Indian Railways. It took seven long years and very stringent quality testing before our product was approved. Our successful experiments opened the doors to other Indian manufacturers. We could reduce the insulation cost by 60%. We in India have 80% of the world’s best Mica reserves. We should qualify it as rare earth. China and Brazil have done it. We really need to protect our natural resources.

Train 18 is a pure electric locomotive. There is no cleaner way to transport such a large, populous country. E-mobility is what Train 18 provides and it is a platform for minimal carbon emission. Clean energy is really required in the field of transportation.

Not just a storm in a teacup

Mr R Bala Kesari, Retired Member of Railway Board & Columnist

In 2017, when the idea of Train18 was getting a push, Mr Mani invited me and a few other retired Railway employees to ICF. We were asked to share our thoughts on how and what should be done to make a train of this type, which is unique. We gave our ideas but thought it was probably one of those routine brainstorming sessions. Normally, after the storm, things become calm. But we never knew that Mr Mani had so much passion for this project.

We were privileged to be present on the occasion when the train was inaugurated in ICF on 29 Oct 2018. After a lot of trials and safety checks, the train was inaugurated in Feb 2019 as the Vande Bharat Express by the Prime Minister, as the train between New Delhi and Varanasi. It has changed the way the Indian Railways are looking at passenger travel in this country. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that a manager in a public enterprise set his own agenda, amidst opposition, both explicit and implicit and yet achieved that.

Sudhanshu Mani is a person who has been responsible for the success of Train 18. Railways have announced that they will launch 300 Vande Bharat Express trains. But Mr Mani has recently written a blog, cautioning the Railways not to go overboard as only two trains are now running. He is honest enough to say to the Railways that they are over-ambitious. Even before our PM made the slogan of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat,’ the Train 18 was launched. These trains being completely indigenous, I had suggested that the two (Train 18) trains running now be called ‘Atmanirbhar Express,’ instead of Vande Bharat Express. The spirit of self-reliance was the motivating force for Train 18.

Dreaming to launch Hyperloop

Prof V Kamakoti, IIT Madras

Train 18 is a very passionate topic for me. There are many important events that happened during Covid time which had mandated that India should move towards atma nirbhar. The
Ladakh incident was one factor. The more frustrating part was that many medical equipment, like ventilators, were not available and we had to very quickly make those equipment. There was a company that created 3000 oxygen beds within a month. When the western world had a vaccine that would work at 8 deg C, we developed a vaccine that would work at 32 deg C. During the lockdown, our  Prime Minister had been giving many messages on the need for self-reliance and he coined the word, ‘atma nirbhar.’

If we do a project without challenges, it is a victory. But then, if we do a project with challenges, it becomes history. I am sure Mr Mani has made history. I was also involved in a similar project, which was Shakti Microprocessor. We wanted to build the entire process and ecosystem to happen in India. We had only one fab in the semiconductor complex in Chandigarh. People were sceptical of their processor. But it did work. Mr Mani deserves a big applause for completing the project in spite of so many challenges.

He has written a whole chapter on the public procurement policy. He has used the policy, brought in consultants, partners and vendors and created the train within the time. He deserves a big applause. He has run a factory with Mahila Shakti, which is very important today. That the Vande Bharat express is running now is proof of its success. This will surely inspire many of our students. There is a trend among our youth to become entrepreneurs rather than employees. The railways is sponsoring our Hyperloop project. I wish that one day, we can release a book on the success story of Hyperloop.

Mr Sudhanshu Mani (in a chat with Mr Keshav)

In 2016, I became the GM of ICF, Chennai, after 35 years of service in the railways. Right from childhood, I always wondered why we don’t have trains in India like we see in Japan or Europe. There was always a talk of doing it. But we were never able to do it. One group supported it and the other opposed it. But the support was only for imports. Making it on our own was not on the agenda.  ICF is in the Limca book of records for making the highest number of coaches under one roof. So this was an opportunity for me. I thought I had the dream, if not the vision, to bring out a modern train. I had the fortune of getting people in my team who were willing to do my dream, without which it would not have been possible.

In an organisation like Railways, there are 20 to 30% who are totally self-motivated and they are the ones who drive such organisations. All they need is a pat on the back. In fact, driving them can be counter-productive. If their leader is not willing to take up a task, then obviously they would be wary. My role was only to make people come together and work.

Initiatives like Quality Circle and Kaizen must be implemented from bottom-up and never forced from top. Never ridicule anybody for giving suggestions, though you may not accept them. During my tenure at ICF, I asked every officer to give one idea for improvement every month. We called it ‘An idea, a month.’ They have to bring it to the forum and if accepted, they have to implement it by themselves. It took some time for people to adjust to this but most officers were very quick to follow this. All I gave was a hand-written certificate for good ideas. We had around 160 officers. 95% of them gave good ideas. In the 29 months that I was in ICF, we could implement nearly 3000 ideas, with no extra effort.

A vision can turn into a nightmare if the leader has a good dream but a bad team. If the visions of the leader and the team get aligned and if they have the capability to deliver, then it gets done in any organisation, and I would dare to say, even more in a government organisation.

The Comrades and the Mullahs

Read Time:17 Minute

MMA organised a discussion on the theme of the book “The Comrades and the Mullahs” authored by Dr Stanly Johny and Mr Ananth Krishnan. The authors were in conversation with Mr Srinath Raghavan, historian and author; Mr Aziz Amin, Former Principal Secy. to Ashraf Ghani, Former President, Afghanistan; and Dr Vinitha Revi, independent scholar.

Dr Stanly Johny

International Affairs Editor, The Hindu

Afghanistan has got a very complicated history. It is popularly known as the graveyard of empires. In the mid-19th century, the British went into Afghanistan. In the 20th century, the Soviets entered Afghanistan and in the early 21st century, Americans went there. There are interesting similarities between all these three great power interventions in this country. The British went there in the 19th century as they wanted to create a buffer zone to stop the Russians from getting into Afghanistan, as it was on the Indian border. They did not want Russian influence to reach British India. They brought down Ghouse Muhammad Khan’s regime and replaced it with Shah Shujah Durrani’s regime in Kabul. But within a few years, the British had to withdraw from Afghanistan and while withdrawing, all the camp followers and British soldiers were massacred, except one medical officer who escaped to tell the world about horrors they faced.

Soviet Invasion

In the 20th century, in 1978, there was a communist revolution in Afghanistan. In 1979, during the Christmas night, the Soviets crawled into Afghanistan. Under their presence, there was a regime change. The President was brought down and assassinated and there was a new President in Kabul. The main goal of Soviets was to ensure that the Communist regime survived and to make sure that the Soviet influence in Afghanistan stayed. But 10 years down the line, the Soviets had to withdraw from Afghanistan in ignominy. Within a couple of years, the Soviet Union itself would disintegrate.

9/11 and the US Anger

Then the Americans, in 2001, went into Afghanistan because of the 9/11 attack. They brought down the Taliban regime and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was founded, supported by the Americans. At the zenith of their presence in Afghanistan, they had more than 110,000 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. If you go down the reports from 2001 to 2004, Afghanistan had relative stability; it had Parliamentary and Presidential elections. Everybody expected that Afghanistan had finally become a stable country. The Taliban had withdrawn into Pakistan or Talib Afghanistan’s mountainous regions. But twenty years later, the United States, the world’s most powerful military force and the largest economic power had to cut a deal with the Taliban and withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, practically handing the country over to the Taliban. Interestingly, the Soviets troops pulled back from Afghanistan in 1989, after 10 years of presence. Two years later, in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the communist government in Afghanistan of President Mohammad Najibullah collapsed. In the case of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, 15 days ahead of the United States completing its withdrawal, the government in Kabul had fallen and the Taliban were already in Kabul.

The Questions

There are interesting questions like why Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires. Why have great powers always shown interest in Afghanistan? What makes Afghanistan so special and what led to the rise of the Taliban? Now with the United States exiting Afghanistan, what does the new situation mean for the regional countries, especially China, which has become the second largest economy and the most powerful military force perhaps, and for India?

The geopolitical contest between the United States and China is going to be one of the most defining foreign policy contexts of the 21st century. The Chinese got rid of the Americans from their backyard in Afghanistan. India has stayed engaged with Afghanistan throughout, except for a brief period in the 1990s when the Taliban were in power. India’s policy was to deal with the government of the day. Afghanistan had seen several regime changes.

Initially, there was monarchy. In 1973, the Dawood Khan’s Republic replaced the monarchy. Within a few years, there was a communist coup and the communist government was in place until early 1990s. When it collapsed, the Mujahideens took over, followed by the Talibans, till the US intervened in 2001. With the return of Taliban regime now, India faces strategic challenges.

Azim Amin, Former Principal Secy to Ashraf Ghani, former President of Afghanistan

The Chinese policy towards Afghanistan has always been viewed through the prism of Pakistan. China’s engagement with the previous government was heavily influenced by Pakistan. And so it is now. However, the situation has changed in Afghanistan and the current Afghanistan presents both opportunity as well as risk for the Chinese government.

Opportunities for China

The Taliban which now controls the government has very strong relations with Pakistan; Pakistan is very close to China. Therefore it presents a lot of opportunities to the Chinese government, for expanding its political influence in the region.

Being a global power, you definitely need a sphere of influence, particularly in your neighbourhood. Afghanistan is in a very strategically located geography. Being at the backyard of China, it is important for the Chinese government to have a stable and friendly government that does not pose threats to its security, political and economic interests.

The Hype about China

Although there was hype in the Chinese media and by the Western scholars and the netizens who said that the vacuum created by the US leaving Afghanistan is going to be filled by China, we see that it has slowly become far from reality as of now, because Beijing is not keen to pursue it, particularly in the short term. Since the Taliban takeover, it has been cold in its approach and is in a position of waiting and observing.

China is keeping its engagement with the Taliban to see how it can build mutual trust with them in their own interest. China’s policy towards Afghanistan has primarily been dominated by security concerns, followed by economic concerns. Afghanistan has vast mineral resources and China wants to expand its influence. The Belt and Road initiative (BRI) is the hallmark of Chinese global ambitions.

The Threats

China’s other concerns include cross-border drug trafficking. They want to make sure that the drug produced in Afghanistan does not get into mainland China. It is also concerned with the security of its projects and assets in the cities in the surrounding region and in Afghanistan as well. Recent events have shown an uptick in violence. It has alarmed many pundits in Beijing. The spurt in violence by the Islamic State of Pakistan and Khorasan (ISPK) and ETIM founded by the Uyghur militants are deemed by the Chinese to be of primary concern. These groups have gained in strength, resources and organisation since the Taliban have taken control. Attacks have intensified in Pakistan’s northern areas of Balochistan. The Karachi suicide bombings targeted the Chinese Confucius Institute’s personnel. These have made China wary of the Taliban and their promises. They are worried by the presence of non-state actors within Afghanistan. Uyghurs have established strong military relationship with ISPK now, which was not the case previously.

My information is that the discussions that took place between the Taliban leadership and Chinese foreign minister early this year revolved around neutralising threats and potential threats to the security of China.

From Warm to Cold

Expecting Taliban to crack down on Uyghurs, Al Qaeda and other militants will have political consequences for Taliban. So far, the Taliban have not been recognised. Maintaining coherence and relationship on the one hand and mollifying international partners in regional countries on the other, is an incredibly difficult task. Many of the Taliban fighters have developed personal relationships, even married and established ideological bonds with these fighters. Their immediate priority is to keep the Taliban rank and file cohesive and this is the key to the longevity of their rule. They very well know the consequence of upsetting these groups who may join the ISPK—Taliban’s existential enemy. The warm reception that Taliban got in China earlier has now turned into a cold response.

Ananth Krishnan

The China Correspondent, The Hindu

Afghanistan was one of the first countries to recognize the PRC in 1950. Diplomatic relations between the two nations were established five years later. The most significant development in those early years was a model agreement to settle the China-Afghanistan boundary. On 2nd March 1963, incidentally the same day China signed the controversial border agreement with Pakistan that India continues to reject, China and Afghanistan announced that they would enter formal talks, which made quite a good progress. By August 1963, they had a draft agreement and by end of the year, they signed a boundary treaty, which most observers agree, largely favoured Afghanistan, as it largely followed the boundary of the 1895 Britain-Russia agreement, which saw China give up its claims on the Wakhan corridor.

The Sino-Soviet Split

The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan which took place during the Sino-Soviet split and a phase of difficult relations between China and the Soviet Union was a huge factor in how Beijing looked at the security of its western borders. Beijing jumped into the efforts to support the Mujahideen against the Soviets. The PLA even trained Mujahideen fighters in Xinjiang, something that is very unthinkable today. Now fast-forwarding to 1996, the Taliban coming to power hardly inspired their confidence, since there was a suspicion of their links to extremist groups, especially those that China believe, are active in Xinjiang. Beijing’s initial outreach to the Taliban was very tentative.

Different Response to 2.0

Beijing responded very differently to Taliban 2.0 though, twenty five years later, which reflected not only the changed global situation but also China’s own changing ambitions as well as a sense of its place in the world. Two concurrent trends are important to note here. The first is America’s exit as well as in the lead up to America’s exit, their growing weariness to sustain nation building projects in Afghanistan. The second is Xi Jinping’s entry into power in this period and the launch of the BRI in 2013—the year that he became President. The launch of the BRI which had a clear focus on China’s neighbourhood, dovetailed with Ashraf Ghani coming to power in Kabul and beginning his administration with a push for infrastructure projects. He went to China on his first overseas visit and declared China as a strategic partner. China remained in touch with Ghani till the very end. They did not explicitly back the Taliban against him. They may well have preferred an outcome in Kabul where there was some kind of power sharing agreement, which many people expected to happen at that time.

Two Messages

Two noteworthy messages were conveyed in July, which somewhat reflected the Chinese approach to Afghanistan. The first is, welcoming the fact that Afghanistan now belongs to the Afghan people and its future is in the hands of its own people. Of course, that’s an implicit reference to the end of American presence in Afghanistan and secondly, an expectation that the Taliban will make a clean break with terrorist organisations that had a connect to Xinjiang.

The second factor is that there is still some weariness in China. Even in 2021, several Chinese experts expressed caution against assuming that Taliban 2.0 would be very different from the first version. They were broadly right in their assessment, perhaps more than some Western experts who, for whatever reasons, were putting forth the argument that Taliban 2.0 will be different. The public statements from China, which almost welcomed the Taliban’s return, are more of propaganda driven by the schadenfreude of the US exit and scoring points against Americans, rather than reflecting a sense that China would open its wallet in Afghanistan in a big way.

Memories Don’t Fade

Beyond this sort of outward welcoming of the Taliban’s seizure of power, there was a more complicated response in China to the Taliban coming to power. Many Chinese carry memories of Taliban 1.0 and especially the destruction of Bamiyan Buddhas. They are wary of extremist Islamist groups, and to be honest, of any kind of Islam, if you look at what’s happening within China today and in the Xinjiang camps.  At the same time, the state media was doing its best to remake perceptions of the Taliban within China, diluting the hardline views and instead trying to present them as the real figures from the grassroots of Afghanistan. A lot of this was just hyped.

Projects on Hold

In 2020, the total Chinese FDI in Afghanistan was about 4 million dollars. That is less than 3% of its investment in Pakistan. China’s two biggest projects in Afghanistan are a) developing a copper mine in Mes Aynak and b) an oil field in Amu Darya. Both remain inactive. This was perhaps in the period when there was an American troop presence and more stability and security than what you have today. Even in this period, they were unable to get their projects going. There were recent attacks on some Chinese personnel and projects in Pakistan. Even in Pakistan, Chinese companies currently have put their plans on hold. A lot of the 62 billion dollars of investment spoken about have not really materialized.

One consistent theme is, Chinese do not want to repeat the mistakes of the West. They don’t want to put in dollars that they won’t recoup, let alone set boots on the ground. But on the other hand, they are taking more steps to insert themselves as a power player. We are seeing that not just in Afghanistan but elsewhere in the neighbourhood. We have seen that in Sri Lanka and in Nepal. They are willing to be involved in domestic politics to a degree not seen before in the past. They are willing to take more steps to protect their security. Take, for instance, the new base they are helping to construct in Tajikistan. According to reports, they have stationed some of the People’s Armed Police force, who are in charge of internal security in Xinjiang.  So we are seeing a more assertive China that’s willing to take some amount of risk. But at the same time, at least for now, it is still a generally cautious player that does not want to repeat the mistakes of others.

Srinath Raghavan

Historian and Author

In view of the security concerns that China has about Islamist terrorist organizations operating in the western province of Xinjiang, they have taken extraordinary steps and put in a great degree of surveillance and control, through a system of camps, for their own Muslim people. There is an upsurge against that. The Chinese are concerned about the attitude of the new Taliban government towards these groups. Are they going to support them on the basis of fraternity of Islamic brotherhood? In the past, the Taliban acted along some of those principles. That’s how they gave asylum to various groups, including Al-Qaeda and for which, they paid a very heavy price. Will they go down the Pakistan route of saying that China is so important to us that even if we support various groups, we will respond to China specific concerns by cracking down on terror. Think of what happened in Pakistan, right in the mid-2000s—the infamous Lal Masjid incident, which led to the fall of General Musharraf. Since Chinese nationals were targeted, he used the Pakistani troops to flush out that area. It then spiralled out into things that he could not control.

Two Options

The Chinese have these two broad options. One is that the Taliban while continuing an Islamic agenda operates much more like Pakistan, which is directly responsive to China’s interests. The second is, trying to understand how Afghanistan will potentially fit into China’s foreign policy. We are at an interesting turning point in the BRI itself. One of the key things about the BRI was that it was a Eurasian initiative. It was an attempt to link, under Chinese initiative and leadership, a series of territories, markets, production centres and consumption societies, all across Central Asia, leading all the way to Europe. The Ukraine war has effectively put paid to, at least the European side of the BRI, for the foreseeable future. The Chinese are going to find it extremely difficult to do anything west of Russia. That puts a huge question mark on the future of the BRI itself. We have the really affluent societies in Western Europe and without them, what BRI will achieve is an open question the Chinese will be asking themselves.

Restrict BRI to Asia?

The answer may well be that China forgets the European side of it and double down on BRI in the context of Central Asia and Southeast Asia. That may well be a possible response but it’s not very clear. The way Chinese have dealt with in most parts of the world, we can see that they are interested in possible Returns on Investment (ROI), that is, projects which have worked for them. There’s nothing wrong with that approach. These are not simply purely political decisions. Sri Lanka is going through a crisis but surprisingly, China has not been that active. In fact, India seems to be so much more active in the way they’ve responded to the immediate crisis of Sri Lanka. So there is no reason to assume that the Chinese will do something by way of investments in Afghanistan. Purely from a political perspective, the country has to stabilize. The economy has to have some legs to stand on. The Taliban government has to provide some framework of governance. None of that, at this point of time is exactly evident to any of us. The only thing clear is that the Taliban’s ideological agenda remains broadly the same. Some of the harder edges may have been softened out. But the broad plan is still the same. What that means for the future of Afghanistan’s economy is an important question.

Is Afghan’s Status Hyped?

The geopolitics that is going to happen, particularly in the heartland areas of Central Asia is going to be driven by a number of considerations, which in some ways, is what the US-China rivalry is all about today. It is not the Cold War of the old style where it was a military or a purely ideological competition between two systems—the democracies in the free world versus autocratic China—but actually the competition is much wider. It is more about patterns of development, technology and innovation. It is about who can be more acceptable and competitive with others. From that perspective, Afghanistan will remain an important laboratory, within which, to observe this kind of new geopolitical rivalry between United States and China. The other question is: how important is Afghanistan geopolitically? I think it has a somewhat inflated reputation as being in a very central location. A more careful look at the history of the last 200 years will tell that Afghanistan has not always been that important. It has been important from time to time. The British had their own reasons to try and initially subjugate Afghanistan. A look at the history of Afghanistan, you can see their continued status of neutrality or non-alignment. In fact, in the 1950s, 60s and even early 1970s, Afghanistan got economic aid both from the United States and the Soviet Union. Some of the most iconic developmental projects were done by both parties at that time. Only in the 70s, when the Soviet Union decided to take control of the regime, things changed. Then again, till the Taliban came along, Afghanistan was on nobody’s radar. Post-2001, it again became important. So the geopolitical interest in Afghanistan has not necessarily been continuous and sustained. We could well see another phase where Afghanistan ends up becoming a country, which not everyone is particularly interested in. It could become a backwater, as it was during various times. So I don’t think that we need to put an exaggerated importance on Afghanistan. This is particularly important point for Indian policymakers to understand, because our Afghanistan policy is more or less seen through the prism of Pakistan. Over indexing the fact that Afghanistan matters to India in the context of Pakistan, or in the context of China can actually lead to other consequences or problems for us. We do not have a land border with Afghanistan and it is very difficult for us to have any significant political influence with a regime like the Taliban.

The Art of Management

Read Time:16 Minute

MMA-KAS-IIMC organised a discussion on the book “The Art of Management” written by Mr D Shivakumar, Group Executive President, Aditya Birla Group. The author was in conversation with Mr R Ramaraj Founder, Sify Technologies Pvt Ltd., and Ms Gowri Mukherjee, CEO and Co-Founder, CreditMantri.

Gowri: Is management really an art? I have always felt that it is a little bit of a science.

Shiv: Not true. I thought about this for a long time. There are many aspects of management which are quantitative, for example, anything to do with data or process or supply chain where the hard numbers are there. Context and culture are important in management. There is no management without either context or culture. The elements of management of a business, which relate to consumer, competition and partnership, are all a matter of art. There is no science to it. You shake hands with some people whom you think you won’t shake hands with but you shake. Indian employees reveal their increment and salary to everybody. It is in our culture. When a company is going through stress, even the best manager can’t motivate the team, because, fundamentally people are worried about their job or kids’ education. I can apply all the disciplines of management and I would still have failed. So the context is very important. The timing is also very important, and that’s why I call this the art of management and not the science of management.

Ramaraj:  There is enough precedence, especially in Indian philosophy, about codifying values. It is expected that businesses will go up and come down. If you are expecting it to come down, then you’re a pessimist, but if you’re prepared for it, then you are a true leader. Often during good times, we don’t know why we are good. When something drastic happens, we say, ‘Oh God, why me?’ That preparedness makes us think it’s a science.

Fair argument. Every company prescribes a set of values. Every country does that. Values are, according to me, things you would die to uphold. Here’s the catch with values. How do people experience values in a company or an institution? They experience it through the behaviour of the senior managers. That behaviour is variable and completely contextual. Somebody gets up, has a bad day and he’s grumpy. Why do we ask the boss’ secretary, “What’s the mood of the boss today?” If management is science, we wouldn’t do that. You tend to favour people who come and see you regularly. You tend not to favour people who are out of sight. It has nothing to do with impact. These are human failings and human nature. One has to recognize this. I’m not saying this is wrong or right, but that’s what I have seen.

Gowri: You mentioned the book is broken into three parts: managing oneself, managing teams and then managing business. Can you walk us through that structure?

Managing yourself is possibly the core of having a successful life or a successful career. Nothing is more important than doing that. You can take any set of examples – from politics, sports or business. People from similar backgrounds and similar achievement in school or college diverge out. The divergence invariably goes back to the ability to manage very well.

Tendulkar is a very good example. His ability to manage himself is outstanding. I once remember having dinner with Sachin in Delhi when we were doing one of the campaigns. I asked Sachin, “Which is the most difficult ground to bat on?” Sachin thought about it for a minute and said, “Shiv. Auckland in New Zealand.” I asked why? He said, “There are gaps in the stadium and the wind comes.” Having an engineering frame of mind, I said, “The ball comes slower or faster depending on which end of the pitch you are in.” He said, “That’s not the problem.  When the wind comes at you at ten degree temperature, the biggest challenge is to keep your eyelids open for the two seconds after the ball is released and it goes past you. If I do not train to do that, I’m in trouble. When I bat in Auckland, I have to keep my eyes open all the time, so that I could see the ball.” Then he added, “Melbourne.” When he goes out to bat in Melbourne, he stares at the sight screen wide eyed. I asked him why he did that and he replied, “In Melbourne, the light is too bright.  If I don’t stare at the sight screen and absorb that whiteness, I will never pick the red ball.” Only somebody who has really thought about the game deeply can really do that. These are things which you manage yourself. You understand it, codify it and make it a craft. Managing yourself is absolutely critical. There are many elements to it—managing time, ambition and relationship within the organisation.

The second is managing a team. Managing a team is managing horizontally also—managing your peer group, managing somebody else who’s out there, working in a matrix with you. Once you get the privilege of managing a team, and then lead a business, how do you think about business and look ahead? A lot of people in the past world used to look back and extrapolate. I’ve done that as a brand manager. I have stood up in Hindustan Lever and said, “Inflation is six percent. The category will grow four percent. My brand will grow five percent. Our revenue growth is 11 percent.” By and large, you would be right. Today that formula doesn’t work. Extrapolating the past is possibly the silliest way of managing the future.

Sports seem to be a passion for you. What games did you play? How did sports influence you professionally and personally?

I grew up in a boarding school. So (playing) a sport was almost compulsory. One day, I had to play basketball, one day, play cricket and another day, hockey. I had to play things that I hated too. What a sport does or at least what it taught me was four things.

First, it teaches you preparation. Whether you’re going to bat or play a tennis match or play the role of a fullback or goalkeeper in hockey, it mentally prepares you for something. You have to focus on those 30 overs of the match or the 90 minutes, whatever it is. Second, a sport teaches you to assess and judge competition. You tend to look for weaknesses in the opponent to say, what can I drive away from?  What can I do differently? Third, a sport teaches you teamwork. Cricket is an exception where individual brilliance can see you through. By and large, most of the sports are team-oriented. One guy cannot win a match. Finally, a sport teaches you to respect rules and regulations and institutional authority. I used to have a philosophy—never argue against the umpire. In any game, the umpire or referee is the king.

I’ve always thought that a sport teaches people how to lose.

Yes. It teaches you how to lose gracefully. I admire the combination of Nadal Djokovic and Roger Federer. When one of them loses, the other always says, “The other guy played well. One of us had to lose; sad it was me today.” They have deep respect for each other. The other is the old Australian cricket team. Whenever they lost, they would say, “We lost to a better team on this day. Our day will come tomorrow. No problem. We’ll come back.” They never offered excuses or blamed anything or anybody. Losing gracefully and accepting it is just as important as winning.

You have not interviewed startup entrepreneurs—people from the younger startup ecosystem. Why is that?

There are entrepreneurs in my batch of 21, like, Aarti Kelshikar, CVL Srinivas, Harsha Bhogle, Renuka Ramnath and Vikas Khanna.

Ramaraj: The entrepreneurs that you’ve chosen in a way reflect enterprises, profit, profitability and all the stuff that we were taught as good management principles. Today, all the heroes that we worship and invest after are the ones who are very ambitious, drive high valuation and great teams, taking high risk. They have very different models of business that we see as disruptive. Are there any lessons to be learned from them?

There are many big lessons. Over the past six months, I met at least 100 to 150 digital startup owners—first to learn and then to see what this model is all about. The average age of a company in the year 1935 was 90 years. Today, it is anything between 12 and 18. There will be two types of companies in a future world. One is the legacy companies, who will be there for 60 or 70 years or more like the Tatas, Birlas, Mahindras and Reliances of the world. Then there’ll be another bunch of companies who will have a very short life span, may be 0 to 20 years. Either, they will die, or they’ll get bought out or they’ll merge. The first set of company will go slow and steady and give you stability. You can learn the basics there. The second type of companies is high-risk, high-return type. The adrenaline is pumping all the time. Tomorrow is a different day from yesterday. Now, you have to make up your mind as to which type of company you belong to. You cannot be in a second stage or new age company and say, “I want the security of the first stage company.” If you go back by 30 years, there was another stage company called the government. Those days, people would say, the government had all the protection and discourage those who join private enterprises. Now, nobody talks about the government, because the government cannot develop jobs anymore. They can have regulatory jobs, the armed forces, police and so on. In a digital world, there is no role for the government to create physical jobs. Those days are over. We are now back to a similar debate—between private enterprise and startups.

When we hire, we look for people with drive and ambition. Ambition may be bad too. How does one test oneself to know when it is bad and when it is good?

Ambition is good because it raises the bar consistently. I am not an advocate of saying, “Don’t be ambitious.” We are all ambitious for our kids, our teams and our companies. But once ambition becomes a very naked exercise where you wear it on your sleeve and it’s all about yourself without the collective element of anybody else, then that’s a serious problem. Someone like Geoffrey Boycott was deeply ambitious about his score. His team members didn’t like him and there are videos of some of them deliberately running Boycott out. When your ambition is so clouded that you don’t want to think of the team, then that hurts you. CK Prahalad said, in the context of companies, ambition must be higher than their resources. If you think about yourself in a very individualistic way, you must have what I call divine dissatisfaction to say, “I want to be a better version of myself tomorrow.”  You can do that only if you constantly get feedback and reflect. You can’t ask for promotion in your company because your 2002 batch mate got promoted in Colgate. You should do what’s right in your company. Thus there are many shades of ambition. Talking about ambition is not the same as committing in a disciplined manner to achieve it.

In my father’s and our generation, we all were hired to retire.  Now, if somebody stays for more than three years, they think it’s something wrong with their ability to move or they are not wanted. We have to learn continuously. There are many lessons of learning from your bosses and peers. If this trend of people leaving within two or three years continues, are we going to move ahead with a bunch of inexperienced people?

Difficult question. We reflect and thought on this a lot. The consumer is changing far faster. David Ogilvy said many years ago that the consumer isn’t a moron; she’s your wife. It’s so true. We see a bunch of young people whose thoughts are very different on the future, compared to other people. Secondly, technology is impacting change dramatically. Whenever I look at trends, I always ask myself: Does this trend impact the individual?  Does it impact the family? Does it impact the society? If it impacts all three, you can be sure that it will impact your business. That’s my simple checklist. The employees react to what they see. Twenty years ago, retail was a hot sector. Then mobility became a hot sector. Now for the new age companies, technology is a hot sector. Tomorrow, it will be Metaverse. So employees consistently want to ride that next wave and think, ‘Why should I get stuck in an old age industry, with old age bosses who don’t teach me anything?’

A very important shift has happened in learning in the last 10 years. On the job training used to be a big value proposition of every company. People would say, “Come join us. We will teach you. We will grow you into a general manager.” I have not seen one interview of any CEO in the last five years about on the job training. It’s gone. As leaders and companies, we’ve outsourced development plans to management institutes like ISBs and IIMs. Even coaches, we outsource. There’s nothing of development to an individual which is happening in the organisation today. Then, why do you expect the employee to stay with you? I have this conversation with many CEOs. I can tell you that everybody is frustrated with it but nobody is able to offer anything.

Gowri: Is your definition of ‘on-the-job training,’ learning from bosses and peers through interactions or going through a structured learning program in the premises?

We used to call it 10-20-70 model. On-the-job training in the past would be 70% of the capability building. Let me give you an example. In Unilever, every time I had to think of advertising and how to do better, I would send a note to my guru Michael in London. He would send back the note saying, “Not good enough, Shiv. Rewrite.” I have rewritten, at least 10 to 20 times to sharpen the message to the consumer and the advertising. That’s on the job training. Michael took interest in ensuring that the next generation of marketing people in Unilever learnt to practice very well. You don’t have that today. Everybody is in a rush. When I give feedback to my team, people tell me that they have not received such feedback. If I don’t do that, I am hurting them. That’s my point of view.

Ramaraj: If you give adverse feedback, most people start leaving. They have opportunities and so they leave, saying you criticise their work. It’s not taken as helping one grow. Is that something that we will see more?

Feedback is the breakfast of champions. You can easily make out the guys who say, “Give me feedback and I’ll take it.” They take it on the chin and try to be a better version of themselves the next morning. There are some people who, when you give them feedback, try to defend or project. If you truly want to give feedback as a boss, you have to be a few miles ahead of your team members in thinking, in framing the problem and structurally thinking about the issues. Many bosses are not. Do people in your team and your industry respect you? If they do, then they will take your feedback. Second, be consistent. You call out good and bad as it is. Then people will see that over a period of time. If you are only attacking the person and not the issue, then that is not feedback anymore. It’s murder.

Gowri: There is a rush to acquire new skills.

Yes. There is a mad rush to hire people. Companies must diligently recruit people and put in the framework very rightly. Drucker was the first guy who talked about the concepts of organisation, business, manager, span of control and profit centre. He studied organisations deeply. It was the supply chain era. Philip Kotler came in and said that the consumer is the king. That is when the marketing era started. In the late 80s, Michael Porter came in and said—of course, without using the word—we work in an ecosystem: suppliers, buyers, regulators, government, etc. The skills needed in these three defining points of time are very different. I believe that the biggest and cheapest way of learning is to watch people in your organisation. You learn a lot more by just watching people—how they react and conduct themselves, than anything else.

Ramaraj: In recruiting, how do we know who is the right candidate, especially the younger people? We often know only from hindsight.

When I look for people, I look for communication skills, drive, energy, etc. I also ask them for their biggest failure in life.  If people are not pushing their boundaries, they are not failing. In a fast changing world, you need self-reflection, self-awareness and resilience to come out of failures.

Do the best management skills come from experience or from theories and case studies?

It is a combination of both. You cannot implement something if you don’t know the concept or the underlying principles. First level is the principles and body of knowledge. The next level is experience and understanding of what other industries have gone through.

Is there anything called the Heart of Management?

There is. A practising manager in every company has a choice—either to follow the company rule book or what the employee wants, which is an individual value proposition or to find the right mix. That is the heart of management. If you blindly follow the rule book, then a computer can do the job. If I pander to every individual need, I can’t have 100 employee value propositions. The heart comes in judging what is right for the company, in the context of the employee.  In the post-pandemic world, the heart is going to come by offering employees flexibility.

How can employees balance their ambitions and their ability to achieve those ambitions?

We tend to invest in the stars in organisations. That’s a fundamental mistake. I am not saying we don’t need stars. We need a Tendulkar but only in the context of the team. If you take a room, the ceiling represents the stars. The average capability of the organisation might be the floor. We tend to put disproportionate time and energy in growing the stars. Then the gap between the stars and the average performers widens, leading to cynicism, strife and back-biting. The trick is to grow both the stars and the average simultaneously.

How do you keep yourself effective and productive?

If you want to be relevant in today’s world, you need to learn a lot. I speak to people from outside my industry. I have done this consistently over many years. If something works well in some industry, by and large, it may work for other industries too, from my experience. The ability to stay relevant to my people is what really drives me. In managing time, the trick is to manage your dead time like sitting in a flight or a car. You can do a lot of things at that time. The second I would say to young people is to avoid as much distraction as possible, such as late night parties, overeating, binge watching, etc. The fewer distractions you have, the more disciplined you are, as long as your exercise and diet are in the right direction. Discipline, energy and focus are absolutely critical for any good career. You need to manage all the three. Having one alone is not good enough.